Texts and Photos by Dhiman Saha

Photograph by Dhiman Saha

There were three of us: Ratu, Francis and me. My best buddies. On a rainy monsoon evening, we started planning a trip to Kashmir. The route we set was Dhaka-Kolkata-Delhi-Srinagar and changing up Delhi for Mumbai on the way back. It was an eight-day-long trip, beginning on the 16th of June and ending on June 24. Tickets, hotels and transport had been arranged one and a half months in advance of our journey to ‘Paradise on Earth’; we were that excited. But enough with the minor details and let the story begin.

FIRST SIGHT OF BEAUTIFUL KASHMIR
When our aircraft first approached the Kashmir sky, I looked outside the window and saw a kingdom of clouds, hills and mountains. It felt like I had literally entered paradise and wanted to jump on the soft, white clouds I saw ahead.
In Kashmir, thousands of small houses are built into the valleys of the mountain ranges. We were welcomed at Srinagar airport by Mehedi Hasan Azad, with a self-conscious smile and a spacious car. Azad Bhai, as we came to call him, was a well-spoken person who loved jokes, music and making new friends. He soon became a very essential part of our five-day journey there and drove us around everywhere. Srinagar is the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, where the roads are clean and three storied houses line the streets. My mind was free; the sky was bluer than I had ever seen it before.

FIRST NIGHT IN HOUSEBOAT
It took us 45 minutes to reach Dal Lake from the airport. The lake is really big and beautiful with a massive mountain in front. Many colourful shikaras were floating around on the water. A shikara is a boat with comfortable seating on them, similar to the ones in Bangladesh. Some were carrying tourists and some were selling stones and handicrafts. The same boats sell vegetables at dawn. We were told not to buy anything from the floating market, so we refused each boat saying, “agar kuch chahiye toh puchlenge.” Sitting on a boat in the middle of the lake, with a huge mountain and a setting sun in the background, I fell in love with Kashmir. I had always dreamt of staying in a houseboat and my wish was finally fulfilled. Sitting on the deck of Lake Victoria at night, recalling old memories and looking at the stars, Kashmir made our hearts smile.

Photograph from Unsplash.com

WAY TO GULMARG, KASHMIR’S COOLEST HOLIDAY DESTINATION
Waking up to a cup of hot tea on Dal Lake made me feel so lucky to have had the opportunity to come here. The gentle breeze and the clear blue sky disconnected me from my busy life in Dhaka and kept me at peace. Azad Bhai was waiting for us at Shikara Ghat, from where we set off for Gulmarg.

Gulmarg is a small hill station situated 56 km away from Srinagar, where the road climbs steadily uphill during the last 12 km, passing through pine and fir forests on the way. There was nothing hugely remarkable about the journey from Srinagar to Gulmarg but when we reached Tangmarg, the scenery changed dramatically. We were told that the road to Gulmarg, located at the foothills of Pir Panjal Hills, is covered with carpets of snow in the winter. In Kashmiri, gul means flower and marg means field. We found many small, white flowers growing by the roadside, a sight which delighted our eyes. We stopped along the way to admire the valleys and the views from the top.

It had begun drizzling in the hills by the time we reached our second home in this paradise, the Khaleel Palace. We could see the snow-capped mountain ranges in all their glory from our hotel. This place was at an altitude of 2,650 metres (8,694 feet) and the temperature was 12 degrees Celsius.

Gulmarg is famous for the Gulmarg Gondola, one of the highest cable cars in the world. This was obviously on our bucket list, as well as seeing Apharwat Peak at 13,999 feet. Horses and ATVs were carrying tourists to the base camp of Apharwat Mountain, which is sits around 9,500 feet. From here, we reached the summit of the mountain by the cable car.

The place was a paradise for skiers and adventure enthusiasts. Regular tourists were trying their hand at skiing too, rolling down the slopes on sledges. Luck did not favour us that day, however, as it started raining ice chips at that very moment, preventing us from climbing to the peak. The bad weather required our prompt return back to the base camp via the Gondola.

Having had this mildly stressful experience, made me think about the struggle serious trekkers face when climbing to the peaks of the Himalayas. Some hot maggi and a cup of Kashmiri kahwa, a traditional green tea infused with cardamom, warmed us up and gradually prepared out bodies to return to the hotel. Our guide for the day turned out to be an interesting man named Noor Mohammad Parray. The way he supported us during our ascent and return to the base camp of Apharwat was amazing. Whenever I needed help navigating my way, I found Noor standing in front of me. He suggested a restaurant called Falak in Koongdoori, where we had a scrumptious lunch before returning to the hotel in the evening. Before leaving, Noor invited us to visit Kashmir again.

Photograph by Dhiman Saha

Two young guys delivered our luggage to our rooms, wished us a pleasant stay and left smiling. In the hills, the temperature drops very fast at night and residents do not move about much. We spent the night with the heater on and the electric blanket set to ‘high’. It was a very silent night – takes a bit of getting used to for a Dhakaite. There are no horns blaring, intermittent lights beaming in through your window, no party music playing in the distance. Again, it truly was heaven on earth.

TOUCHDOWN PAHALGAM
Gulmarg to Pahalgam was a 150 km long journey via the Srinagar bypass, which took up a whole day. We drove through saffron fields and stopped anywhere we wanted, tasting local watermelons on the highway, eating a South Indian vegetarian lunch at a dhaba and at a shop named Kashmiri Kesar, recommended to us by Azad Bhai, where we bought our hearts fill of pistachios, almonds, saffron and spices.

The shop owner welcomed us with kahwa, and a tiny container of various nuts, saffron and kernels. From the way we jumped on these refreshments, he must have thought we hadn’t had breakfast that morning.

Photograph by Dhiman Saha

We passed apple orchards during our drive but the apples are too green to eat before September so we did not stop to try any.
Pahalgam is situated at an altitude of 7,200 feet on the bank of the Lidder River, which originates in the Kolkhoi Glacier. We were mesmerised by the beauty of the region and headed to the Hotel Heevan, located at the bank of the river with a bridge connecting both sides. Pahalgam is a great place to go trekking and white-water rafting, all the while surrounded by the beauty of nature.

As the sun began to retire for the night, we too decided to do the same and checked in to our third home, where Altaf Bhai was waiting for us. I stood in the lawn of the beautifully furnished Lal Kothi and took in the majestic view of the mountain in front of me. Altaf Bhai is the person who booked all our hotels and trips in Kashmir. He works for Kashmir Travel Line, and is a very friendly and helpful person to have a chat with. After taking a hot shower, I was walking through the wet streets of Pahalgam and thinking; Kashmir, a quaint valley, is indeed a juicy piece of heaven on earth. From sparkling green forests to serene mountain ranges, the place is sure to rejuvenate the soul of the traveller.

ADVENTURE TO PAHALGAM VALLEYS
The adventure of a lifetime to the Pahalgam Valleys started right after breakfast the next day. Every single place we visited deserves its own, detailed description. The aura of each place is enough to take your breath away. We halted near a waterfall, wandered the slopes of the Denno Valley and crossed a thrilling track to reach Baisaran, known to many as ‘mini Switzerland’, among other memorable moments.

I request every traveller to visit Pahalgam at least once in their lifetime. I guarantee you will not be wasting your hard-earned money.

Upon returning to the hill station in the evening, we had dinner at another South Indian restaurant called Nathu’s Rasoi. Later that night, as I slid under the heated blanket, scenes from the pristine valleys and sparkling streams of the last few days flashed before my eyes and reminded me of what Mughal Emperor Jahangir has said upon seeing Kashmir for the first time.

Agar Firdaus bar ru-ezamin ast, Hami ast o-hami ast o-hami ast
(If there is heaven on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here…)

SHOPPING SUGGESTION:
There are a few handicraft outlets on the Gulmarg-Srinagar road where you will find traditional Kashmiri suits, shawls and leather jackets at a relatively low price. The best quality dry fruits like pistachios, almonds, saffron, kernels and spices at roadside shops on the Srinagar-Pahalgam highway.

FOOD:
Most of the restaurants serve South Indian and Kashmiri cuisines. You can find meat items at around 20% of total restaurants.

EXPENSES:
It depends on how luxurious your trip is. Kashmiri people call Kashmir, ‘cash more’ in jest; so the more you spend the more you can explore. If your plan a week long, travel by air. And for a longer trip, road journeys are definitely more exciting but less expensive.